For most parents, the decision to send their children to sleepaway camp is made with little hesitation. But whenever my husband and I considered sending our youngest child, we balked.
Rebecca is developmentally delayed. Whatever issues we blithely dismissed regarding our older children rose to the surface, and we resisted for many years the voices encouraging us to send Rebecca to sleepaway camp. But we were finally convinced that this would do her a world of good.
Rebecca began attending camp when she was 15. Most teens begin their stint as a counselor at that age, but Rebecca was a first-time camper. She is a child, mentally speaking. She cannot read, add, or subtract. She will never ride a bus alone. She will never learn to drive. Rebecca relies on us for her most basic needs. We help her get dressed and with all aspects of her personal hygiene. She depends on us, her parents, and siblings for so much.
So it was as if we were sending our 5-year-old off to camp. We anguished over so many issues: How would she fare in an unfamiliar setting? What if she exhibits obsessive behaviors? How could we be sure that the medications would be properly and punctually administered? What if she is bullied? What if she has a seizure?
Despite all of Rebecca’s disabilities and limitations, she still needed a taste of independence. She needed to feel, as every young person does, a sense of accomplishment and self-worth, a sense of personal autonomy.
Given all of the challenges that Rebecca faces, we chose her camp and program very carefully. The special needs camp staff must be trained for exigencies that may go far beyond standard training. Just as critical is camper training. The “typical” campers must be coached—constantly, repeatedly, consistently—to include, accept, and welcome their special needs peers. Children with disabilities are more likely to be excluded, bullied, and in the worst cases, abused. These are fears that keep the parents of special needs children awake at night. It takes a great deal of preparation and dedication for a camp to assuage those fears.
My husband and I decided on Camp Ramah-Canada. It has a wonderful Tikvah Program, which accommodates young men and women with special needs. During her time there, Rebecca has participated in camp productions (“Grease” was the word–and show–last year). She is also a regular on the basketball courts and she jumps at every opportunity to go tubing.
At camp, Rebecca feels independent. She is free of our constraints and has the extraordinary opportunity of being with her friends all day, every day. At home, she is at our mercy. If we are busy, she has no social interaction. We arrange her extracurricular activities. At camp, Rebecca revels in the social interaction that most young adults take for granted.
Of course, we still worry when Rebecca is away at camp. But we also worry when we send her to school, when we drop her off at her recreational programs, and even when we leave her in the care of a good friend. The anxiety will probably never fully subside each time we send our daughter out into the world.
But we recognize that whatever our anxieties are, it is vital for Rebecca to enjoy what other children and teens enjoy: the sunshine, the lake, the woods, canoe trips, friendships, and the independence that summer camp provides.
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